Large funeral Mass for admitted abuser priest raises concerns in Seattle

An overflow funeral Mass with some 20 celebrants and choir at St. Joseph Parish in Seattle for a former priest who admitted to sexually abusing boys has left some parishioners confused and angry and Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain talking about revisiting archdiocesan protocols for funerals of priests removed from ministry for child sex abuse.

Those supportive of the liturgy and previous evening's vigil for admitted abuser David Jaeger, 70, emphasized church teaching on mercy and forgiveness, honoring a friend, hope in the Resurrection, and paying respect for Jaeger's pastoral work, notably his ministry to the gay and lesbian community and people with AIDS.

The vigil and Mass were held July 28-29 at St. Joseph after family and planners received permission from its pastor, Jesuit Fr. John Whitney. Whitney said they had told him that Seattle's other Jesuit-staffed parish where Jaeger attended, St. Ignatius, would be too small to accommodate the number of people expected. (St. Joseph seats about 700.)

The Vatican accepted Jaeger's petition to be laicized in 2005 after it had been revealed he admitted to sexually exploiting up to 10 boys. Jaeger died July 22 from complications of Alzheimer's disease, according to an obituary in The Seattle Times.

Months after the funeral took place, St. Joseph parishioners and others, including the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, have continued to express concerns and lodge complaints with Whitney and the archdiocese. Nearly two dozen people took part in an Oct. 13 "sidewalk news conference" in front of the Seattle chancery building.

We need you! Support independent Catholic journalism. Become an NCR Forward member for $5 a month.

Critics say:

  • The funeral violated the spirit, if not specifics, of current archdiocesan policies as well as the U.S. bishops' 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People developed in the wake of the national clergy sex abuse scandal;
  • The nature of the funeral celebration could discourage potential clergy sex abuse victims from speaking out, as it appeared to gloss over or ignore an offender's acts of abuse;
  • The event revictimized people who have been abused; and
  • The Times obituary as well as the eulogy and funeral program depicted Jaeger's laicization as motivated by his wanting to be with his longtime partner without any reference to the sexual abuse of boys.

The archdiocesan guidelines for the funeral of a priest removed from ministry allow for a homily but proscribe a eulogy.

Archdiocesan spokesman Greg Magnoni and Sartain have said that archdiocesan guidelines apply to priests removed from ministry, but not to priests who have been laicized like Jaeger.

Nonetheless, Whitney said he provided Jaeger's funeral planners a copy of the archdiocese's precepts and thought he made it clear they should be followed.

Asked separately about their participation in the liturgy as concelebrants, two priests -- who wished to remain anonymous -- echoed one another. "To be honest, I was offended by some aspects of the funeral and probably would have stayed home had I known a few of the things that what would be said," said one, "but I decided to honor the memory of a friend and do what I regarded as a work of mercy -- burying the dead."

Both men lauded Jaeger's AIDS ministry, which along with directing outreach to the gay and lesbian community were Jaeger's final assignments with the archdiocese.

In an Oct. 9 letter to St. Joseph parishioner Steven Cramer, Sartain said "the Archdiocese had asked that the spirit of the guidelines be closely followed in the case of David Jaeger, even though he had been laicized," and Whitney had "informed the family of the requirement that the guidelines be followed."

"Even at a time as sensitive as the death of the perpetrator," Sartain wrote, "the greatest prudence and sensitivity must be shown so that, while the deceased is given a Christian burial which proclaims the Lord's mercy and our hope in the Resurrection, the impression is not given that the abuse perpetrated by the deceased did not take place or was not serious."

Acknowledging "the fact that 20 priests concelebrated," Sartain wrote: "We will assure that this does not occur in any future similar situation." He concluded, "In light of our experience with the Jaeger funeral, I will personally review our guidelines once again to determine if further refinements are needed."

In an Aug. 2 open letter to parishioners, Whitney said: "In hindsight, I believe I made two mistakes regarding these events, for which I apologize to the St. Joseph community and to those who may have been offended: first, by allowing the vigil to be on site it gave the entire event a prominence that could be misunderstood as disregard for the abuse in which Jaeger engaged; and second, by not more directly and authoritatively overseeing the planning I perhaps allowed certain excesses to occur. ... While I set certain ground-rules, and believe they were largely adhered to, maybe I could have done more."

In his letter, Whitney said, "It was a difficult situation, and one that confounds me even now.

"I recognize that there continues to be much denial about the reality of abuse in all segments of the Church -- liberal, conservative, the bishops, and the people in the pews," he added. "The complexity of human sin and human goodness makes it a challenge to see how both exist so starkly in one person. When we look for simple answers, we either reduce someone to their sin, or try to whitewash that sin or ignore the damage that it causes (and thus compound the hurt for the victims). It is an impossible dichotomy for us to navigate, yet God somehow holds both shores. Perhaps, if we all become more humble, we may yet find reconciliation in the Church: reconciliation that does not drive away survivors of abuse, but that also leads perpetrators to genuine repentance."

Parishioners mentioned the obituary on Jaeger in which a photo of him as a young cleric was featured and which announced the times and locations of the vigil and funeral. Prepared by friends and family, no mention of Jaeger's abuse history was included.

Magnoni said the archdiocese "had no control" over the obituary and other aspects of the funeral. The archdiocesan guidelines in cases of men not laicized would have required the death notice to include the words: "removed from active ministry according to the norms of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

The funeral was expected to become part of the discussion Tuesday at a town hall meeting at Seattle's St. Bridget Parish and will be put before the priest's council by Sartain this week.

Fifteen minutes from St. Joseph Parish, the St. Bridget gathering was scheduled to update parishioners on issues surrounding the case of Fr. Harold Quigg, who led that parish from 1989 until retiring in 2000.

In 2004, Quigg was removed from ministry at the recommendation of a board investigating clerical sexual abuse cases. The board recommended his name be made public. Now-retired Archbishop Alexander Brunett decided against the recommendation.

In April, St. Bridget parishioners became aware of Quigg's abuser status via a posting on the SNAP website. However, for a decade, the priest celebrated occasional weddings, baptisms and funerals, wore his clerical collar, socialized and accepted gifts from former parishioners who believed he was retired and in good standing.

In a May 2 news release, the archdiocese said Quigg had agreed to not wear clerical garb, not take part in public ministry, not to "present himself publicly as a priest," and to submit to "the archdiocesan relapse prevention program which included the services of a qualified third party monitor with experience in supervising all types of sexual offenders."

The release said "the steps taken ... were not sufficient to alert us of Quigg's violations of the restrictions on the celebrations of the sacraments" and confirmed that pastors, staff members and parishioners where Quigg served had not been informed of his status or of the nature of the allegations.

On May 6, Sartain and a handful of archdiocesan officials faced a crowd of nearly 200 at St. Bridget. During the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Sartain apologized for the breakdown in supervision of removed sexual abusers and said he would have made Quigg's name public if he had known what he knows now.

Based "on what the archdiocese has learned recently," the May 2 statement promised a "thorough review" of the archdiocese's "relapse prevention program" and monitoring protocols.

Asked Tuesday if the archdiocese had issued a report or update on the review relapse prevention program, Magnoni said: "Harold Quigg's issue is a personnel matter."

Parishioners concerned about the Jaeger funeral have linked it with the Quigg case, viewing both as indicative of a lack of archdiocesan diligence in regard to priests found to be credibly accused of sexual abuse of children.

[Dan Morris-Young is an NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement